-The Supreme Court ruled
Thursday that President Bush overstepped his authority
in ordering military war crimes trials for Guantanamo
The ruling, a strong rebuke to the
administration and its aggressive anti-terror policies,
was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, who said
the proposed trials were illegal under U.S. law and
international Geneva conventions.
The case focused on Salim Ahmed Hamdan,
a Yemeni who worked as a bodyguard and driver for
Osama bin Laden. Hamdan, 36, has spent four years
in the U.S. prison in Cuba. He faces a single count
of conspiring against U.S. citizens from 1996 to November
The ruling raises major questions
about the legal status of about 450 men still being
held at Guantanamo and exactly how, when and where
the administration might pursue the charges against
It also seems likely to further fuel
international criticism of the administration, including
by many U.S. allies, for its handling of the terror
war detainees at Guantanamo in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in
Iraq and elsewhere.
Two years ago, the court rejected
Bush's claim that he had authority to seize and detain
terrorism suspects and indefinitely deny them access
to courts or lawyers. In this follow-up case, the
justices focused solely on the issue of trials for
some of the men.
The vote was split 5-3, with moderate
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joining the court's liberal
members in most of the ruling against the Bush administration.
Chief Justice John Roberts, named to the lead the
court last September by Bush, was sidelined in the
case because as an appeals court judge he had backed
the government over Hamdan.
Thursday's ruling overturned that
The administration had hinted in recent
weeks that it was prepared for the court to set back
its plans for trying Guantanamo detainees.
The president also has told reporters,
"I'd like to close Guantanamo." But he added,
"I also recognize that we're holding some people
that are darn dangerous."
The court's ruling says nothing about
whether the prison should be shut down, dealing only
with plans to put detainees on trial.
"Trial by military commission
raises separation-of-powers concerns of the highest
order," Kennedy wrote in his separate opinion.
"Concentration of power (in the executive branch)
puts personal liberty in peril of arbitrary action
by officials, an incursion the Constitution's three-part
system is designed to avoid."
The prison at Guantanamo Bay, erected
in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks
on the United States, has been a flash point for international
criticism. Hundreds of people suspected of ties to
al-Qaida and the Taliban including some teenagers
have been swept up by the U.S. military and secretly
shipped there since 2002.
Three detainees committed suicide
there this month, using sheets and clothing to hang
themselves. The deaths brought new scrutiny and criticism
of the prison, along with fresh calls for its closing.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a strongly
worded dissent and took the unusual step of reading
part of it from the bench something he had never done
before in his 15 years. He said the court's decision
would "sorely hamper the president's ability
to confront and defeat a new and deadly enemy."
The court's willingness, Thomas wrote
in the dissent, "to second-guess the determination
of the political branches that these conspirators
must be brought to justice is both unprecedented and
Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel
Alito also filed dissents.
In his own separate opinion, Justice
Stephen Breyer said, "Congress has not issued
the executive a 'blank check.'"
"Indeed, Congress has denied
the president the legislative authority to create
military commissions of the kind at issue here. Nothing
prevents the president from returning to Congress
to seek the authority he believes necessary,"
The court's ruling was a resounding
loss for the Bush administration. Justices also rejected
the administration's claim that the case should be
thrown out on grounds that a new law stripped their
authority to consider it.
"It's certainly a nail in the
coffin for the idea that the president can set up
these trials," said Barbara Olshansky, legal
director of the Center for Constitutional Rights,
which represents about 300 Guantanamo detainees.
Hamdan claims the military commissions
established by the Pentagon on Bush's orders are flawed
because they violate basic military justice protections.
Hamdan says he is innocent and worked
as a driver for bin Laden in Afghanistan only to eke
out a living for his family.
The case is Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 05-184.